The country's growing number of 'disappeared' are paying for their fathers' (alleged) sins.
- By Poppy McPhersonPoppy McPherson is a Myanmar-based journalist, reporting from South and Southeast Asia
When the plainclothes police came for Mir Ahmad bin Quasem, they didn’t even give him time to put on his shoes. According to his wife, at around 11 p.m. on Aug. 9, the young lawyer was dragged down the steps of their first-floor apartment in Dhaka, Bangladesh’s capital, and into an unmarked van. Their two young daughters ran behind, screaming.
Five days earlier, Humam Quader Chowdhury, a politician in his early 30s, had been driving to a court hearing with his mother when a group of men reportedly stopped the car at a traffic light. They ordered him out and bundled him into another vehicle.
By the time a gang of 30 men in civilian dress reached the home of Amaan Azmi, a former army brigadier general, he had heard about the other two abductions and was hiding. They combed through the building, questioning an employee of the family at gunpoint before finding Azmi in an empty apartment, according to his brother, Salman al-Azami.
“They said that they had come from the detective branch of the police,” he said.
The three men, all sons of senior opposition leaders, were abducted in the space of a few weeks in August. Despite numerous witnesses who say the security services picked them up, the authorities have denied involvement. None of them has been heard from since.
But it’s not their own activities that resulted in them being sucked into the black hole of Bangladesh’s growing security state. They were the sons of some of the most reviled men in the country, all politicians convicted in recent years of committing war crimes during Bangladesh’s 1971 war of independence from Pakistan.
Two of those elder men — Salahuddin Quader Chowdhury and Mir Quasem Ali, the fathers of Chowdhury and bin Quasem, respectively — were recently hanged for brutalities including rape and murder. Amaan Azmi’s father, Ghulam Azam, died of a heart attack in 2014 while serving a 90-year jail term for his part in establishing pro-Pakistan militias implicated in atrocities.
Originally a geographically noncontiguous part of Pakistan, after its bloody partition from India in 1947, Bangladesh, then-East Pakistan, emerged as a nation despite violent resistance from the Pakistani military authorities. Hundreds of thousands of people — as many as 3 million by Bangladeshi government figures — were killed as a result of Pakistan’s “Operation Searchlight,” an attempt to crush the independence movement. The families of the victims had spent a long time waiting for justice. The current Bangladeshi prime minister, Sheikh Hasina, whose father was a popular hero of the independence movement, owes her election victory in 2009 in part to her promise to prosecute those accused of war crimes.
But the tribunal set up that year was quickly mired in allegations of incompetence and blatant political bias. The defendants were all prominent opposition figures, including a sitting parliament member, and their lawyers complained of numerous constrictions. In one case, 35 witnesses were allowed to speak for the prosecution and just three for the defense. Leaked transcripts revealed that a judge was privately consulting with the Bangladeshi director of a genocide studies institute in Brussels. In one conversation, the judge described the administration as “absolutely crazy for a judgment” before the 2014 polls. In Salahuddin Quader Chowdhury’s case, the judgment appeared online before it was announced, prompting allegations that it had been written by a government ministry.
With opposition leaders in the dock — or dead — their family members were also kept under surveillance. In the days and weeks leading up to their disappearances, both Azmi and bin Quasem began to express fear for their own safety.
Interviews with lawyers, rights groups, and relatives of the missing men suggest they have likely been held in detention centers, possibly subject to torture, their families unaware of their location or if they now are alive or dead.
They have joined the growing ranks of Bangladesh’s “disappeared.”
Over the past five years, hundreds of Bangladeshis, many connected to the opposition, have gone missing under mysterious circumstances, their friends and families swearing they were picked up by law enforcement.
Bangladesh is ruled by Hasina’s avowedly secular Awami League government, while the political opposition is dominated by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), headed by the prime minister’s bitter rival, Khaleda Zia, and Jamaat-e-Islami, the largest Islamist party. The latter two have traditionally partnered in coalitions, and the war crimes defendants — and many of the missing people — have hailed from both.
Analysts place the abductions in the context of a wider crackdown on the opposition that the government has justified by a rising threat of militancy in the majority Muslim state. Although recent attacks, including a spate of killings of bloggers and activists, have been claimed by the Islamic State and al Qaeda, the Awami League has consistently sought to blame local militant groups they say are enabled by the BNP and Jamaat-e-Islami. “Part of [the government’s] campaign against the opposition has been to equate them with militancy,” said Tejshree Thapa, the South Asia researcher for Human Rights Watch.
David Bergman, a Dhaka-based journalist who has been tracking the abductions, says at least 80 people have been taken so far in 2016.
Some have eventually emerged and been formally arrested. The most high-profile case involved Hasnat Reza Karim, a 47-year-old engineer, and Tahmid Hasib Khan, a student at the University of Toronto, who were dining by chance at the Holey Artisan Bakery in Dhaka on July 1 when Islamic State-linked militants stormed the restaurant, taking hostages and killing 24 people. They had no known political links. Despite a dearth of evidence implicating the pair, they were secretly detained without charge for a month before being presented as “arrested” — as if they had been freshly picked up off the streets.
Others have turned up dead, some killed by the notorious Rapid Action Battalion, an elite anti-terrorism unit, in what the authorities claim are “crossfire” shootouts. There are many still missing, including 19 BNP members taken in November and December 2013. Human Rights Watch told Foreign Policy that it has heard from credible sources that at least five of those men are dead.
Michael Polak, the British barrister representing bin Quasem, believes his client is being held, with at least one of the other two missing men, in Dhaka’s Minto Road detective branch.
“His family [is] very worried about his health and how he’s being treated,” he said.
Polak said a senior diplomatic source gave him a frightening insight into how the Minto Road prison works. “They have a book of torture methods and make the inmates choose how they’re going to be tortured,” he said.
Reportedly, some of those released were freed on the condition that they not talk about their treatment or participate in politics. Last year, Salahuddin Ahmed, the chief spokesman for the BNP, surfaced in India more than two months after he was allegedly picked up by plainclothes detectives. News reports described how he was discovered disorientated, wandering near the border, and put on trial by India for illegally entering the country.
“Yes, I am Salahuddin Ahmed, a BNP leader,” he told bdnews24.com in a stilted interview at the time. “I was kidnapped by a group of unidentified people from Uttara [a suburb of Dhaka] in Bangladesh, and I do not know how I landed in this place. I can’t remember anything after I was abducted.”
“There are people who’ve died in custody, people who’ve miraculously jumped off fifth-floor balconies,” said Thapa, the Human Rights Watch researcher. “The government just maintains such a silence on it that no one’s paying attention.” Azami said his brother, Azmi, had been tracked for a long time.
“We were aware that there were people outside the building — plainclothes policemen always there,” he said over the phone from the U.K., where he works as a university lecturer. “We thought that it could happen anytime for quite a long time.”
In 2009, the same year Hasina came to power, Azmi received a letter saying his position in the army had been terminated, his brother said. There was no explanation. He had spent 30 years in the service. “Everyone knew he was one of the best army officers Bangladesh ever produced — and, like this, he was dismissed,” said Azami.
Some suggest that the convicted war criminals’ sons, or at least bin Quasem, may have been taken in anticipation of the heavily politicized Sept. 3 execution of the latter’s father, Mir Quasem Ali.
Previous executions after war crimes trials had brought waves of supporters for the condemned onto the streets, rustled up by Jamaat-e-Islami.
“In the case of Mir Quasem Ali’s son, the speculation is that the government was trying to preempt any kind of mobilization around the execution,” said Shehryar Fazli, the Crisis Group’s senior analyst for South Asia.
But Fazli says these worries are largely groundless.
“In the more recent executions, Jamaat-e-Islami as well as the BNP were unable to get something really going on the streets, so the likelihood of them being able to mobilize around this last execution was probably limited,” he said. “But you’re talking about a government that has responded extremely heavy-handedly with respect to all sorts of perceived threats against its legitimacy and political stability.”
Rights groups say the disappearances began in earnest after 2009, under the new president. But they spiked this year after the July attack on the Holey Artisan Bakery. Although the Islamic State claimed responsibility for the siege, the government has sought to pin it on local terrorist outfits it said were working hand in hand with the domestic political opposition.
The terrorist threat has served to justify a widening crackdown on dissent, Fazli said. The backlash has extended to shooting and “kneecapping” members and supporters of opposition parties, as detailed in a recent Human Rights Watch report. A new law governing nongovernmental organizations, meanwhile, allows the closure of nonprofits that make “derogatory” comments about any “constitutional bodies.”
In recent months, dozens of online news operations have been shut down and several journalists arrested.
While stifling mainstream opposition, analysts say the heavy-handed response could serve as a recruitment tool for fringe elements.
“A lot of the motivation for joining a violent group is that the legitimate avenues of opposition and dissent are being closed off,” said Fazli of the Crisis Group. “These organizations — whether they’re jihadists or student wings of parties like Jamaat-e-Islami — they’re becoming more attractive avenues of opposition.”
Alienated by the crackdown, once staunch, secular support bases for the Awami League like the Dhaka Bar Association have swung toward parties like Jamaat, he said.
In a recent phone interview, Obaidul Quader, the minister for communication, would not comment directly on allegations of disappearances and extrajudicial killings but blamed the opposition for “violent policies.”
“One of the successes of this government is combating terrorism,” he added. “You see some terrorist acts before, but now the situation is relatively stable. No problem.… Militancy is now a global phenomenon.”
The West, which sees Hasina as a useful ally against Islamist extremism, has stayed largely silent on allegations of rights abuses. “In the international community, people prefer Sheikh Hasina to the opposition,” said Thapa, the Human Rights Watch researcher. “There’s a lot of sympathy and leeway given to the government to conduct its anti-terror operation.”
Besides, the country is making progress. Poverty has fallen dramatically since the 1990s. The country is one of the few developing nations on track to reach most of their Millennium Development Goals.
“We’re all comparing it in our heads to what it was 20, 30 years ago,” said Thapa. “The international community … is willing to believe the government’s solution that economic growth is the answer to all this.”
In the context of 156 million people, in the eighth-most populous country on the planet, what are a few score missing men?
“You always have that expectation that he might come back,” said Azami. “If someone is killed, you know that person is killed, you move on. Here, you can’t move on.”
In an email, Tahmina Aktar, the wife of bin Quasem, said her daughters, aged 3 and 4, often ask why their father does not call or come home.
“Why do we have to suffer like this?” she asked. “Is being family of opposition [leaders] such a big crime?”
Photo Credit: SK HASAN ALI/Getty Images